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Feeling unusually attached to that iPod? A new study explains why

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A man talks on his cell phone as he holds his portable digital music player. (Photo by Katherine Bindley)

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A man talks on his cell phone as he holds his portable digital music player. (Photo by Katherine Bindley)

Moments after Whitney Bennett purchased a new laptop, she walked along on 14th Street in Manhattan hugging it to her chest. She is hoping this computer will return the favor, unlike her old one, with which she had a tumultuous relationship.

“How could you do this to me?” the 21-year-old student at Baruch College recalled yelling, while in tears, to her old Dell. She treated it like an insolent classmate that was “being mean to me.” Bennett also recalled a former cell phone she suspected had something personal against her. Her iPod has yet to demonstrate its true nature, but Bennett points out that it is a recent purchase, and they don’t yet know each other well enough.

With a barrage of technological products released on the market every day, and a society that is increasingly dependent on them, researchers say that for many people gadgets have taken on human qualities. A recent study by the University of Chicago explains that people seek out human connections to their gadgets in an attempt to alleviate loneliness.

“When you’re bereft of human companions, you’ll create them,” explained Adam Waytz, a doctoral student in the social psychology department at the University of Chicago who collaborated on the study. Bennett was not surprised to hear that loneliness could account for some of her behavior, “Your gadgets are the only things with you all the time,” she said. Bennett admits to assigning to her gadgets a range of emotions, vices and other attributes usually reserved for humans.

Researchers in the study asked people to evaluate the traits of various objects, such as an alarm clock that moves out of reach so you can’t hit the snooze button and a battery charger that prevents overcharging. The traits included having free will, consciousness and even the ability to experience emotion.

Next the subjects were evaluated on how lonely they were, through questions like, “How often do you feel isolated?” As the researchers predicted, the lonelier people were more likely to rate the gadgets as having mental capabilities.

The phenomenon was famously depicted in the film “Cast Away,” in which Tom Hanks plays a plane crash victim who befriends a stray volleyball he dubs Wilson to ward off loneliness on a deserted island. J.P. Pueshel, a 39-year-old real estate investor who lives in Manhattan’s West Village, calls his two iPods “Blackie” and “Whitey.” Pueshel admits to feeling cut off when his iPod isn’t with him. “They’re like pets, right? Dogs, cats. It’s the same general idea.”

The naming of iPods comes as no surprise to the clerks at Apple’s 14th Street store in Manhattan. They say they see people humanizing their gadgets all the time. Betsy, the name that conjures up a trusty old work horse, is a particular favorite, said one employee. Indeed, the most popular names are typically women’s and are more old fashioned, he said. Terms of endearment are also popular.

“I do call it my baby,” Christina Lamarre said of her computer while she waited for a repair appointment at one of Apple’s Genius Bars. “I have to go take you for a check-up” the 18-year-old student admitted saying to her MacBook, whose formal name is Bernard. “That’s why were here,” she explained. “He has a little scratch.”

Michael Sharick, a 27-year-old audio operator for the television news channel NY1 is familiar with a common refrain among coworkers whose gadgets are broken. “I’ve seen e-mails at the office that say,’Oh my BlackBerry is sick’ or ‘My BlackBerry decided to stay home today but I’m at the office,’” he said.

Other factors may be at play when owners assign or imagine human traits in the gadgets that help them organize their lives. “Our broader theory is that anthropomorphizing is a product of not just loneliness but a need to understand, as our society becomes increasingly mechanized and full of technology,” Waytz, the psychology student, explained.

Manufacturers have responded to that basic human need, understanding and connecting with other humans.

When a malfunctioning iPod shows a sad face on its screen, it triggers an immediate understanding of the problem, Waytz said. “Humans know exactly what that face means,” he said.

Some manufacturers are exploring other ways to connect gadget and owner. At the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas in January, one of the award-winning products was the Motorola Rokr E8, a cell phone that reads text messages aloud and announces who is calling.

“When a gadget takes the physical appearance of a human, with a humanlike voice, it feels easier to control and it feels easier to understand,” Waytz said.

Though there’s not yet proof that treating your gadgets like people actually does anything to alleviate loneliness, Waytz suspects anthropomorphizing in general can be beneficial. Researchers have found that having pets and believing in the supernatural both contribute positively to a person’s well being. But Waytz warned, “I wouldn’t want to make the claim that having a relationship with one’s computer offers the same benefits as it would having a relationship with another person.”

There may be nothing to be ashamed of, but that doesn’t mean some people aren’t a little embarrassed at the mere suggestion that they might be developing humanlike relationships with their products. “No, but I have a lot of friends that do,” said Jeff Baun, a 23-year-old interior designer. He eventually broke down and confessed he yells at his computer from time to time. “Like it’s dying on me now, and I’m going to buy a new one. I’m replacing you, iBook!” he screamed, before catching himself, as though realizing he had just talked to a computer in public, and one that was not even there.

E-mail: kab2162@columbia.edu